Review by Environment Trust member, Bella Hobson

Environment Trust was given an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of Marble Hill House on 7th October with English Heritage curator, Esme Whittaker. It was a wonderful opportunity to see the house as it is now, before it closes at the end of October, and to hear of the plans English Heritage has for its restoration.  The Neo-Palladian Georgian villa, with its pleasant riverside setting, was built by Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk (1689 - 1767) after a gift from King George II, whose mistress she'd once been.

Esme explained how paint research and written evidence, such as the inventory made just after Henrietta’s death, letters and preserved bills, have helped guide the Marble Hill Revived project and set the scene of life at Henrietta's country home, where she had enjoyed the company of friends such as Horace Walpole.

The famous portrait of Henrietta by Charles Jervas will be brought into the main downstairs hall as if to welcome visitors. It was painted in c. 1724, about the time she was planning the house as a country retreat, which could be approached by road or by river. Among the other paintings which will be on show are river scenes and conversation pieces.  Some of the smaller paintings, such as the one by Hubert-Francois Gravelot, 1745, will be displayed in the Breakfast Room. Fragments of wallpaper in this room had been found when the General London Council owned the property and have been reproduced, but most of the walls would have been stone coloured. Here a small table will be set with porcelain suitable for the taking of tea in company. It is known she had a wonderful collection of this fine ware. A tea kettle and tea chest, lockable as the tea tax had made it a costly commodity, will also be displayed showing how this beverage was enjoyed, as was coffee and hot chocolate at the time.  A member of the group reminded us of the Twickenham connection with the long lived Twinings tea firm. It is known that the Dining Parlour was decorated with Chinese wallpaper hung on battens with linen and lining paper. The current paper installed in a previous restoration will be kept. Here the table will be set as if for a dessert course.

We were then taken up the fine stairs to the grand reception room with its double height and symmetry in typical Palladian style. Here the Giovanni Paolo Panini pictures of classical ruins are displayed. Nineteenth century photographs show them in situ and fortunately in the 1980s the paintings were tracked down and returned to their original settings. It was fascinating to learn that the gilding would have been added in a previous restoration project, and that originally it was not part of the scheme. The torchères would, as now, have been gilded to bring glitter and life to the room when lit candles were placed there. One of the ‘Peacock’ side tables was traced and has come back to the house restored and others have been made to complete the set of four. We learnt that in crafting these much was learnt about the original woodwork techniques. The decorative and useful Chinese lacquer screen, which has Henrietta's coat of arms on it, has been restored and is an important feature of this room showing her fashionable interest in chinoiserie.

From here we entered the morning sitting room. Henrietta enjoyed corresponding with such people as Swift, Gay and Pope, and one of the pictures is of The Letter Writer by Philippe Mercier (1691-1760) and so it will be displayed here.  In this room is a wonderful set of mahogany furniture with embroidery by Anne Northey. Esmé kindly took the protective cover off to show us the settee. This room had been decorated in the 1960s restoration in green flock but an invoice mentions crimson damask and festoon curtains in Henrietta’s time.

The vivid green of her bedroom is striking. The bed is one of the pieces on loan from the V&A Museum. The alcove has classical columns contrasting with the rich drapes. Next door is the room which will be set as that of her great niece, known as little Henrietta, who had been here for a few years as a child. Letters from her survive, one mentioning putting shells in the grotto. She was a beneficiary of her great aunt’s estate and later lived in Little Marble Hill which was in the grounds, but no longer exists.

The third bedroom on this floor was Henrietta’s second husband’s, George Berkeley MP, whom she had married in 1735. He sadly died 11 years later, but it had been a much happier marriage than that to her first husband, Charles Howard, 9th Earl of Suffolk with whom she had had a son Henry, but from whom she had obtained a legal separation before his death in 1733.

We were privileged to have had this tour of the house, enjoying glimpses from the windows of the lovely views. The visit was appropriately rounded off with a walk to the ‘kitchen garden’, which was a legacy from the Environment Trust’s Jam Yesterday, Jam tomorrow market gardens project. Volunteers maintain the garden and people are welcome to join them. In this area, separated from the Park by low fences, there are additional plots used by members of the community, including the nearby nursery. Some of us were then able to enjoy delicious courgette and leek soup at the Coach House café, presumably examples of produce that are grown there.

We are grateful to the expert and enthusiastic Esmé, also curator at Chiswick House, for showing us around and explaining the project to us, and to Maureen Coyle, Property Manager, for hosting us. There will be much-needed repairs, such as tackling damp problems and electrical work, but also an opportunity to reorganise and enhance displays and improve the information available for visitors. We wish the project well!

Image 1: Portrait of Henrietta Howard, 9th Countess of Suffolk, Charles Jervas. Credit: English Heritage

Image 2: Detail of the wallpaper in the Dining Room. Credit: Environment Trust

Image 3: Gilded Hall. Credit: Environment Trust

Image 4: Produce from the Kitchen Garden at Marble Hill. Credit: Environment Trust